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There have been a lot of laughs about the term "alternative facts" (as used by the incoming US administration), but are there logical or philosophical frameworks for the types of distorted truth-telling that may go on in a typical political discussion?

One might argue this is quite natural, that maybe my upbringing or culture will influence how I tell or receive a narrative.

So especially in fields like public opinion where the concept of "truth" is somewhat fluid, there may be legitimate cases where "alternative facts" still bear some truth, perhaps when people are still making up their minds or understanding details.

What is that called? How is that studied?

  • i don't understand why instead of helpful answers and comments, I am getting down-votes and silence. moving on... – john mangual Feb 7 '17 at 17:16
  • i am getting the sense there really isn't any framework for reasoning about the types of "spin" or "slant" that are going on the news these days. certainly nothing precise, like what we have in mathematics. these people, for one thing, aren't lying... – john mangual Feb 7 '17 at 17:32
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    This is definitely interesting territory -- but maybe we could approach this in a little more NPOV manner? Drawing from some substantial philosophical context here could help a lot in terms of motivating -- that is, demonstrating topicality. I might consider here asking more much more narrowly and directly about (some specific work about) subjectivism and relativism -- possibly noble lies could be a useful vehicle if you're intent on interrogating the political context here... – Joseph Weissman Feb 9 '17 at 21:11
  • Amazed that no one has referenced Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" stoa.org.uk/topics/bullshit/pdf/on-bullshit.pdf, which has a detailed discussion of forms of misrepresentation, and "On Truth". Bullshit is "speech intended to persuade (a.k.a. rhetoric), without regard for truth" (from wikipedia). I think these works might provide a framework of the kind you're looking for. – Stuart Apr 10 '17 at 0:23
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You might be looking for subjectivism, the doctrine that there is no objective truth, or relativism, the doctrine that all truth is relative. Interestingly enough, both of these are more typically associated politically with liberalism than conservatism. Relativism, in particular, is often introduced in the context that different cultures have their own "truths"; and that much of what was promoted as objective truth in the past is in fact just the shared conclusions of one particular culture --as bound up with culture-specific assumptions and prejudices as anything else.

Both are more often presented in a moral context. It's rare (but not unheard of) for them to be extended to cover the realms of material and historical facticity. In their stronger forms, they are arguably self-defeating, given that the statements "everything is subjective" and "everything is relative" are presented as objective, universal truths, even as they deny that such exist.

In general, the idea of alternative facts is problematic for any larger entity such as a nation, because it denies the possibility of any common standpoint in shared beliefs about the world. If two sides cannot agree on statements of material fact, it's difficult to see how they could ever reach agreement on moral issues or issues of policy and governance.

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    everybody's seen things that are subjective "such and such is in a relationship" an we debate the meaning of "relationship" but "such and such is in a car crash" can we debate the meaning of car crash? Or "the election is riggged" and we can debate the meaning of "rigged" +1 – john mangual Feb 7 '17 at 17:53
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    Philosophers can debate anything. – Chris Sunami Feb 7 '17 at 17:54
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You write:

There have been a lot of laughs about the term "alternative facts" (as used by the incoming US administration), but are there logical or philosophical frameworks for the types of distorted truth-telling that may go on in a typical political discussion?

It seems to me that the amount of outrage over that phrase by Kellyanne Conway is entirely for political reasons.

If you are from the political left you are likely to be outraged. If you are from the political right you are likely to rationalize and dismiss it.

For example, one can argue that all she meant was that Sean Spicer's statement was based on evidence and numbers that she trusts and that the interviewer disputes.

It does not even have to be a case of "distorted truth-telling" for she may have said it in good faith.

One can just as well criticize Chuck Todd for ridiculing and insulting Conway based on the evidence he had at the time.

Neither Conway nor Chuck Todd who interviewed her had access to the fact of the matter concerning the number of people who attended the inauguration. Most of the inordinate amount of analysis of evidence as to the number of people who attended the event probably followed the interview rather than preceded it.


That said, it seems to me that the framework you are looking for is epistemology:

Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: How we are to understand the concept of justification? What makes justified beliefs justified? Is justification internal or external to one's own mind? Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry.

It seems to me that there is indeed a serious problem for people to communicate knowledge, opinion, and ideas. However, it is not especially a problem in the field of public opinion as you write, but also in academy and science, and it seems to me that people have a hard time communicating ideas in general. "Facts" are often just weapons in the war of ideas.

Philosophers are not exempt from these wars either, and their fault may be even greater than anyone else's since you would expect them to know better:

It is just astonishing to see how often "academic" discussions of phenomenological controversies degenerate into desk-thumping cacophony, with everybody talking past everybody else. (Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p.66)

Finally, here is an interesting paper on the subject by Peter Van Inwagen: Is It Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence?

You can find more by searching for philosophy and disputes, epistemology, etc...

  • Kellyanne Conway is neither the first, nor the best, nor the last. This is why I say "laughs" and not "outrage". Schoolchildren tell alternative facts, we see them in court cases. Anyone who has a story to tell plays the truth somewhat. – john mangual Feb 9 '17 at 11:22
  • Nice response, especially the Van Inwagen article. I'm surprised that you mention epistemology but don't bring up the question of underdetermination. – Alexander S King Feb 9 '17 at 19:33
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I wonder if one could think of "alternative facts" analogously to a nonstandard model, where one might assign an interpretation to some event "e" that, while not the standard interpretation, is still in some sense valid. Of course, I don't really believe this to be the case, but it was something interesting that occurred to me as I read your question.

  • Of course, I'm grossly oversimplifying model theory here, so I don't intend for this to be a technically accurate posting. – Tim Haight Feb 9 '17 at 2:27
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I think you're fundamentally right about what's going on in these heavily ironic and unflatterig discourses, but whether or not you are is more of a social question than much of philosophy. I won't go and google some ideas, for want of reflecting badly on the alternative, but you may want to look into Bullshit and the political uses of irony.

The concept of truth is somewhat fluid, both analytically (is truth coherence, correspondence, etc.?), in the philosopher's laboratory, and in political and cultural discussion. Afraid I don't know much about this, but you have e.g. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil begins

SUPPOSING that Truth is a woman--what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women--that the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which they have usually paid their addresses to Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for winning a woman?

And Marx famously, pithily, argumed that

Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power... Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

If you want something less entry level maybe look into Hegel. In conclusion, I think it says more about language than the "facts". Eliot:

Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish

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Consider the following scenario:

You are a totally rational and level headed person living in early 17th century Europe. As far as you or anybody with half a brain can tell, the Earth under your feet is fixed and the Sun moves through the Sky, this is as undisputed a fact as facts can get.

Then this total wacko called Galileo comes along and starts claiming that the Earth TURNS AROUND THE SUN!!! THE EARTH MOVES, THE SUN IS FIXED!!!! Talk about an alternative fact! He says he got this idea from these two obscur conspiracy theorists called Copernicus and Kepler, whose real motivation, was to undermine the good people of Europe's faith in how the universe works, to make good citizens doubt the very stability of the earth under their feet.

Thankfully the Mainstream media...sorry, I mean the Catholic Church, put this nut job back in his place and silenced his dangerous fear-mongering before he could undermine the very fabric of renaissance society. We dodged a bullet, normalizing such extremist views would have set back astronomy centuries!


What I am trying to illustrate here is the idea that all facts are theory-laden, as later formalized by Duhem, Quine, Kuhn, and Feyerabend. It isn't that there aren't any facts, but that facts can never be separated from our theoretical presuppositions. When you buy into to CNN's version of events, while scoffing at Conway and Spicer's explanation of things, you are working off of the presupposition that CNN does honest reporting.

These ideas were put forth in the context of epistemology and the philosophy of science (See Quine's "Two Dogma's of Empiricism" and Feyerabend's "Against Method") -- but they could apply to political discourse just as well if not more so. See the following posts:

I am by no means defending Conway and Spicer's version of the events (I am as anti-Trump as it gets). What I am trying to point out is that you have a better chance of debating with such people if you keep and open mind, try to establish a common ground for understanding, use the Socratic method, and work on pointing to inconsistencies in their own reasoning vs trying to prove that your reasoning is superior to theirs.

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